The recent Isla Vista shooting and the subsequent clash between Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday and Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have sparked serious dialogue about the way movies depict women, as well as the effect those representations’ have on how women are treated by dudes and, in turn, treat themselves. None of the essays on the subject cut to the heart of the issue as effectively as the 425 words by The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, titled “Movie Girlfriends Hate Heroism.” In the piece, Ortberg draws attention to the way female characters in action movies—and romantic interests in particular—tend to exist primarily to discourage the hero from doing awesome, heroic stuff and occasionally get kidnapped, via stripped-down sample dialogue between archetypal characters. An illustrative sample:
LADY: dont do the thing you’re supposed to do
HERO MAN: why not
i just dont want you to
This is representative of many conversations kick-ass protagonist types have with their love interests in movies, confirming the hero’s implicit picture of women as cowardly and afraid of the risks of saving the goddamned world. Ortberg calls attention to this problem (and, implicitly, the ways it contributes to problems in the way men perceive women). This isn’t a new problem for the movies. But another one of her examples also raises the specter of a similar, but distinct phenomenon in a different medium:
LADY: where are you going
HERO MAN: to do my dangerous job i do
LADY: please dont do it tonight
HERO MAN: dont do my dangerous cool job?
dont sell any drugs to antiheroes or strangle guys or kick in some doors because youre a big angry boss man with serious danger inside him
HERO MAN: if you really knew me youd be scared as heck
im knocking man i knock doors youre a big dumb mouth stop crying
LADY: oh man thats scary get out of here go do your job
If you’ve been anywhere near a TV (or corners of the Internet inhabited by TV nerds) in the past five years you’ll get the reference: Walter White’s famous “I am the one who knocks” speech from the fourth season of Breaking Bad, a show that epitomizes writing female TV characters as narrative obstacles. In the scene, Skyler, Walt’s estranged wife and largely unwilling accomplice, asks if they should go to the police, and whether her children are in danger considering that their father is a meth cook for an international drug cartel whose boss has tried to kill him. Walt is bothered.
Walt and Skyler’s conflict here takes the same form as Ortberg’s first example, presenting a female character as a stumbling block to the cool stuff. The difference here is based on the requirements of each medium. In movies, women are both love interests (i.e. objects to be attained) and obstacles to accomplishing the movie’s big goal, so that everything can wrap up neatly in a couple of hours. But TV’s seriality and long-term storytelling means that in order to keep the female character in question (and whatever conflicts she causes) around, she’s usually the wife of the male protagonist. Of late, that’s normally a middle-aged antihero, both because of who TV writers tend to be and because unless you’re Game Of Thrones, TV doesn’t have the money to tell the same stories as blockbuster movies. One thing TV and movies have in common: The wife most frequently serves to try to prevent her husband from doing whatever it is that makes him antiheroic. Whether it’s mob activity (The Sopranos), cooking meth (Breaking Bad), intensive police work (The Wire), or, most frequently, affairs with an endless string of younger women (pretty much every prestige drama ever), she exists to attempt to deny the audience the very reason they’re tuning in to the show, to delay their gratification.
Like the Please Don’t Go Brass Ring, the Antihero Wife and her dehumanizing function on TV is nothing new, especially in a TV landscape largely patterned after both The Sopranos, with Tony’s combative relationship with Carmela, and Hill Street Blues, which often treated Fay Furillo, the ex-wife of edgy hero cop Frank Furillo, like, in actress Barbara Bosson’s words, a “whining kvetch.” In addition to continued confusion and anger about Betty’s continued presence on Mad Men, there’s a large amount of writing on fan misogyny directed at Skyler White, up to and including Anna Gunn’s op-ed in The New York Times about threats she’d received. But the comparison with Ortberg’s piece, and the ways in which it highlights how women are often used as narrative obstacles to Cool and/or Heroic Stuff suggests something a little different, and a little more relevant to the debate: a closer relationship between the conception of masculinity that drives Walt’s villainy and, say, Iron Man’s heroism than we might otherwise like to admit.
One of the (many) striking things about the “one who knocks” scene is that Walt doesn’t even get angry because Skyler wants him to stop cooking meth—she’s already been complicit in his criminality for some time. Instead, the thing that sets him off is Skyler’s suggestion that he might not be able to handle the danger from his employers, that he should go to the police to protect him, that he might not be as much of a man. So Walt responds with the threat of violence. The version of masculinity Walt tries to enact is one in which he has to do the Cool Thing and not the safe thing. If he agrees he needs help and is in over his head, he’s weak—no better than the woman who might try to stop him from doing his “dangerous cool job.” Here, he reveals himself as ensnared in a set of gendered expectations that doesn’t just encourage him to react aggressively and without regard for the safety of himself or his family in order to be a man—it requires it.
It’s right to criticize art in which women are treated like brass rings for its harmful effects, up to and including the culture of male entitlement exemplified by communities like PUAHate. (The extent of these effects as discussed in arguments around Hornaday’s criticism is debatable, but the films’ basic attitude towards women seems less so.) But it’s also, to some extent, easier to talk about what these portrayals do to women to the exclusion of how they persist and warp men over time. The treatment of Antihero Wives can teach us how hard that entitlement is to maintain, and the consequences of trying to live up to its often contradictory demands. The exact causality might be difficult to muddle through, but the path from the adolescent fantasies Ortberg mocks to an all grown up, bitter, and ready to knock Walter White is not so hard to imagine.
What it means for Walt (or Tony Stark) to be a man is shaped by cultural conventions in which women are supposed to be both obstacles and objects to be acquired, even if it’s as content spouses, and the good family man resists his wife’s wrongheadedness through any means necessary—the man provides. Of course, there have to be some narrative obstacles for our heroes—without conflict we wouldn’t have a story in the first place. But that’s no excuse for having those characters always be women, or for associating their narrative purpose with some warped version of “femininity.” And it’s certainly no excuse for creating sets of expectations that continue to marginalize women long after the movie is over and hero has “won” his passive, accepting prize.
Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.